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Ask Umbra: Is it OK to shop at IKEA?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

My boyfriend is moving downtown to be closer to his job, which also happens to be closer to me. He wanted to shop for furniture at IKEA, and I agreed I would go if we went to a local vintage market first. He didn't really care about the market (not his taste I guess) and fell in love with a full-blown living room set at IKEA, which he plans to buy all new with a few upcycled pieces as "an accent.” Is there any way to move him from made-in-China matchy-matchy to upcycled oasis without being a sustainabitch about it?

Katie P.
Phoenix, Ariz.

If this relationship can survive a trip to IKEA, it can survive anything.
Katie Soltysiak
If this relationship can survive a trip to IKEA, it can survive anything.

A. Dearest Katie,

Wow. This letter is juicier than a horse meatball! Where to begin?

I assume you both are relatively young, as your boyfriend has apparently never had to furnish a flat before. If I’m wrong, and he’s tossing old living room furniture in favor of a shiny new set, then we are dealing with another problem entirely. It also seems you’ve been together long enough to be committed, to a point: He’s moving closer (but not in!) and you’re shopping together (but not at the same stores!). If your relationship were newer, he would have pretended to love the vintage market and possibly ended up with a musty mauve loveseat as the centerpiece of his apartment. Or you would have cooed over Ektorp sofas and Poäng chairs and not suggested that his consumer choices were misguided.

So here you are, in a pretty committed relationship, dealing with a situation that is part eco-debate and part mundane argument about furniture. Excellent practice for marriage, as it happens.

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Ask Umbra: How can we move beyond oil?

Q. Dear Umbra,

I am very interested in mitigating the effects of Peak Oil. Please tell me how BEST to encourage solar and wind technology.  I would also like to encourage investment in new green energy and food research.

Jeff H.
St. Louis, Mo.

windmill-woman-hat
Shutterstock

A. Dearest Jeff,

That’s a busy summer you’ve laid out for yourself. You don’t mention whether you have actual resources with which to encourage new technology, or just good will, so I shall have to guess.

But first, a word on peak oil. This term was coined in the 1950s to describe that time when planetary oil production would peak, then begin to slow down, and finally leave us all standing, bewildered and slack-jawed, in an oil-free future. Estimates of when this peak would occur have varied over time, and recent reports suggest it ain’t gonna happen any time soon, given new discoveries of oil from the Great White North to the deep blue sea.

So you might not need to worry about peak oil per se, Jeff. But we absolutely should worry about our oil addiction. The burning of oil and other filthy fossil fuels is doing a number on our climate. The less we use, the better off we’ll be.

How can you encourage the transition to cleaner energy? I can think of a few things to try.

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Ask Umbra: Which college major will lead to a green job?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

My son is in college and cannot decide which degree to get. He is interested in environmental issues and currently is enrolled with the degree of Civil Engineering. He just isn’t sure if that’s the "job" he wants. He expressed an interest in Construction Management so he can get into green building. Are there any degrees that are better than others that will lead to employment opportunities and are environmentally based?

Greg
Boise, Idaho

man reading green book
Shutterstock

A. Dearest Greg,

How you must be fretting. Your son is in college, perhaps entirely or partially on your dime. He’s interested in the environment, which has not traditionally been the highest-paying industry on the planet (unless you were in the business of destroying it). And now he can’t decide on a major.

But I have good news for you: The environmental field is booming. It’s booming so much it’s not even a “field” anymore!

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Ask Umbra: Should I buy local or organic?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

We have a bountiful selection of summer fruits and vegetables at lots of local farmers markets. My problem is my wife is obsessed with organic ONLY. I want to support organic but I also very much want to support locally grown products. In the last week, my wife has chosen organic tomatoes from Mexico and organic red peppers from Holland over locally grown versions. I'm having a problem buying produce shipped thousands of miles versus the same non-organic product raised less than 10 miles away. Help! Which is the better choice?

Jim H.
York, Penn.

Local or organic? It's apples to oranges, really.
Shutterstock
Local or organic? It's apples to oranges, really.

A. Dearest Jim,

The real question is not which is the better choice, but can this marriage be saved?!

Spoiler: It probably can.

You are not the first to be plagued by this supposed either-or conundrum, and you and your wife both have good instincts. Your wife is presumably sold on the notion that organic produce is better for the land and better for your health, and perhaps also wants to send a signal to the local grocery. Her dollars support an industry worth an estimated $27 billion in 2012, according to the USDA, up from $11 billion in 2004. (Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? But organics still make up only 3.5 percent of U.S. food sales.)

You, meanwhile, are attracted to the idea of supporting farmers in the York area, putting money into the local economy, and knowing where your food comes from. You are lucky to be within reach of “lots” of markets. That’s not the case for many of us, although farmers markets are sprouting faster than radishes: Last year, nearly 7,900 had sprung up across the country, compared to 3,100 a decade earlier. These markets account for about 20 percent of local food sales in the U.S., an industry currently estimated at $7 billion. (The rest of the local-food sales are to restaurants, distributors, and the like.)

Here’s the thing, Jim: If you have access to lots of local markets, I am absolutely sure you have access to food that is local and organic. This is not an either-or situation. You and your wife can both be happy.

Read more: Food, Living

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Ask Umbra: Can my bicycle power my toaster?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

I really like Paolo Bacigalupi's fiction; I read it, teach it, and write about it. His short story "The Calorie Man" and his novel The Windup Girl have me wanting to employ my exercise calories toward something more than moving my bike around the neighborhood. Are there any inventions available that would allow me to pedal my calories into electricity for my toaster?

Eric O.
Naples, Fla.

A bicycle-powered generator.
Hugger Industries
A bicycle-powered generator.

A. Dearest Eric,

I must confess to not being overly familiar with the work of Bacigalupi, although he has appeared in Grist and I am acquainted with people who know and admire him. From what I gather, he writes of a world dominated by agribusiness, greed, and rising seas attributed to climate change … and they call it “science fiction.” Hm.

Your question of course brings to mind another forward-looking fellow, one Ed Begley, Jr. The actor famously powers his toaster with a stationary bike, among his many green habits. Actually, innovative ideas for capturing human energy are all over the headlines, from people-powered gyms to a pedal-powered log-splitter to a concept home powered by exercise. But are such systems within reach of us mere mortals, or even something for which we should aim?

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Ask Umbra: Can I pee in my compost pile?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

I've always enjoyed relieving myself out-of-doors as a way to reduce my water usage, but I recently read that certain chemicals that we cannot metabolize (caffeine, for example) can be pollutants but get removed in the water treatment process. As a coffee addict, I don't want to be sending excess caffeine into Puget Sound to get the salmon and orcas all hopped up, but I do want to flush less. Is it safe to urinate in the compost pile to enrich its nitrogen content, or should I use the toilet to make sure I'm not polluting the water?

Pondering Ethical Excretion
Seattle, Wash.

compost water
fishermansdaughter

A. Dearest PEE,

Until your letter arrived, I hadn’t realized that this column has been experiencing a bit of a dry spell. Your letter reminded me of the good old days, when my inbox was positively overflowing with pee-related queries.

You are right that our liquid excretions can contain pollutants. These include many residues of our modern life, from caffeine to pharmaceuticals to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s RoundUp herbicide [PDF]. That is why we generally send our urine down the pipes into a septic tank or to a wastewater treatment plant.

Read more: Food, Living

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Ask Umbra: Are clotheslines legal in Brooklyn?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

My boyfriend owns a building in Bensonhurst Brooklyn, and one of his tenants has a clothesline out the back window.  Other tenants are complaining.  Are clotheslines legal in Brooklyn? I have searched online and cannot get a definitive answer.  Would love your help, thank you!

Madeline A.
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Laundry hanging in Queens.
Chris Goldberg
Laundry hanging in Queens.

A. Dearest Madeline,

People are complaining about clotheslines in Brooklyn? What's next, lamenting that there are too many cowboy hats in Dallas, or too many cows in Vermont? I know Brooklyn has experienced some serious gentrification in recent years, but it strikes me as a wee bit unrealistic for your boyfriend’s tenants to think life in Bensonhurst or any other urban neighborhood would be uncluttered by other people's realities -- and yes, that includes their underwear.

Read more: Living

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Ask Umbra: Which sunscreen should I use?

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Q. Dearest Umbra,

With summer nearing and the weather heating up, I’m wondering about sunscreens. Is there any such thing as a strong, full-spectrum sunscreen that isn’t hella toxic? Please don’t tell me to sit under an umbrella and wear long-sleeved shirts all summer.

Emma
North Charleston, S.C.

funny sunglasses
A. Dearest Emma,

It just so happens that Grist is exploring the theme “Heat” this month, so your question fits right in. How are we to protect ourselves from the searing rays of the summer sun? Do the products meant to protect us actually do us harm, as you suggest? This is one hot topic.

Before we dive in, let me remind you: I’m not a doctor, and you should talk to yours if you have health questions. However, I do hold an Adv. D. -- Doctor of Advice-ology -- which allows me to freely dispense opinions about the dubious nature of the “personal care products” we use.

Read more: Living

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Ask Umbra: How would you spend $50 million for the planet?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

Let’s say I win the lottery, and want to use my $50 million winnings to save the planet. For example, I could fund enviro groups. I could fund political campaigns to defeat Big Oil’s congressmen. Or I could provide subsidies to buyers of electric cars. But where would I find the biggest bang for my big bucks?

Hypothetically yours,
Mark M.
Athens, Ohio

money earth
Shutterstock

A. Dearest Mark,

I would suggest you donate it to Grist. As it happens, we’re in the middle of a fundraising campaign, and $50 million would go a long way. (So would $5, come to think of it.) Imagine all the cruelty-free peppermint tea I could buy with that kind of cashola!

Your question is an intriguing one, and I will gladly use it as a break from discussions of dish soap and lightbulbs, not that I don’t love those too. Let’s indulge in a bit of good old-fashioned fantasizing.

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Pay dreams: Six smart people on how to invest in the earth

When a reader asked Grist advice maven Umbra Fisk how she would spend a $50 million lottery windfall on the planet, she indulged in some quick-pick fantasizing, rounding up ideas from a few leaders in the field. Here are their full responses:

Erika Allen, Chicago and national projects director, Growing Power:

erika-allenMy son, who just turned 5 in March, and I discussed this. He would buy buildings in the town and make sure everyone has a nice place to live and lots of strawberries to eat. (There is a longer story here about how he connects homelessness and food.) Along the same vein, [I would put it into] working to create community food systems that are closed loop ... food, energy, housing, education, holistic health in a manner that constantly recirculates wealth and monetizes everyone’s contributions and inputs.

David Roberts, senior staff writer, Grist:

Read more: Living